Are Games Getting Easier?

A fairly common question with modern video games is whether or not games as a whole are becoming easier. On the surface, it would appear to be a no-brainer: It’s far more likely that you’ll see the end of a video game nowadays than it was ten or twenty years ago. But we need to ask ourselves, are we asking the right question? What if difficulty is based on more than how far you can get into a game before hitting a wall?

My point is thus: Many older games weren’t difficult, they were more punishing. An example of this is a lives counter, something that’s in less and less in modern video games. Extra lives allow you to restart from a recent point in a game after you die. When they run out, you get sent back even further – to the start of the level, or even to the start of the game. But does this add difficulty? The events of the game don’t become any more challenging to overcome with extra lives, it just means that after a somewhat arbitrary number of attempts the smacks you down with a much larger punishment. As such, most games now do away with a lives counter, and always allow you to restart from a recent checkpoint as many times as you wish.
Another example comes from RPGs, which have also progressed in a similar way. In the vast majority of old RPGs, dying or wiping your party lead to a Game Over screen, which lead back to the title screen and forced you to reload at your last save. Obviously, at the end of a dungeon, this could lose you hours of work. Recently, the trend in RPGs has been to offer safety nets – allowing you to restart boss battles, or skip back to a moment before. Again, this is difficulty versus punishment. It doesn’t make the gameplay any easier, but serves to speed things up and reduce the likelihood of you losing progress.
Obviously the points I’ve tried to raise here don’t apply universally. When Metroid Prime 3 launched, people were surprised to find that the game’s Normal difficulty was balanced to be the same as the earlier games’ Easy, and that the standard difficulty for the series had become “Veteran”. It is also the case that many old games, especially from the NES era, were heavily based on the design of the arcade. In the arcade, incredibly difficult games were an advantage, as every death meant another quarter from a determined customer. But, overall, I think most of what people see as games getting easier is actually just games becoming more polished, less punishing and (arguably) more fun experiences.

Camaraderie in MMORPGs

MMOs have always been a strange subject for me. I remember being fascinated with the likes of Asheron’s Call, Ultima and Everquest as a child, but I never had a computer capable of dealing with the strain of an online world. The idea seemed incredible to me – complete immersion in a real time world populated by real people.
My first actual venture into MMORPGs came when I tried Ragnarok Online on the recommendation of a friend. After working my way through the hilariously broken English tutorial, complete with warnings such as “Monster AI is not implemented yet”, I ventured into the starting area and look for something to do.
A little way in, I saw another player fighting a scorpion. This being a multiplayer RPG, I figure, camaraderie is expected and helpfulness is a virtue that others will appreciate. I run in, and with a few slashes of my sword the monster is dead. However, instead of being thanked for giving my time to help a fellow player, the guy responded bluntly with “dont ks noob” and ran off.
Looking back, I understand why the guy was pissed. I picked up the game, and my first action was to run up to another player and steal the credit for his work. But really, my naive ignorance was unwittingly exposing a flaw in the game that every MMO I’ve played has had:
For games based around the idea of working together, all MMOs typically expect players to compete for resources. From equipment to fundamental things like experience, current MMOs tend to force you to divide these resources between a group. To protect these valuable resources you have to jump through hoops, internal and external, to play with another person. Does anyone really enjoy group invites, loot rolls or dkp?
These systems may help to make a game more fair, but in my opinion they relieve the symptoms without curing the problem. So how do you fix this broken system? The Guild Wars 2 development blog has a few ideas:

When someone kills a monster, not just that player’s party but everyone who was seriously involved in the fight gets 100% of the XP and loot for the kill. When an event is happening in the world – when the bandits are terrorizing a village – everyone in the area has the same motivation, and when the event ends, everyone gets rewarded.

Guild Wars 2 is still in development with an estimated 2011 release, so it will be a while before we know if this really is the right direction for MMOs to head towards. Personally, I’m hoping the risks ArenaNet are taking with this approach pay off, and it finally results in an MMO that truly feels like a social experience.